testing testing

Opt-out leaders to New York: Your testing changes don’t appease us

PHOTO: Justin Weiner

The parents who organized a record-breaking boycott of state tests last year say the commissioner’s latest effort to alter state tests is not nearly enough.

In response to widespread criticism of state assessments, Commissioner MaryEllen Elia last week announced several changes to the state’s testing program. Those changes include giving more educators a role in drafting tests and reducing test pressure and length— key goals of the “opt-out” movement — by reducing the number of questions and letting students take as long as they need to finish.

But opt-out leaders said what appears to be a major policy shift is really a set of minor tweaks designed to appease parents without addressing the concerns that caused 20 percent of them to have their children sit out last year’s exams. Without further changes, opt-out leaders say they will continue to convince parents across the state not to let their children take the tests.

“It’s the non-change changes,” said Lisa Rudley, a founding member of the New York State Allies for Public Education, about the testing concessions Elia made last week. Elia “is still talking about it as if the tests are all good and it’s really a communication problem,” Rudley said.

The commissioner’s policies are based on conversations with thousands of New Yorkers and consistent with the recommendations in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Common Core task force report, according to state education department officials. They said it would be a mistake to move more quickly.

“These are just some of the steps the Regents and the commissioner are taking to ensure our students receive the education they’re entitled to,” said Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for the state education department. “This is critically important work and we will take the necessary time to make sure we listen and get it right.”

Opt-out leaders said each of the changes Elia announced last week falls short of what’s needed.

Giving students unlimited time runs counter to opt-out’s goal of reducing the duration of tests, Brooklyn teacher Jessica Klonsky said on Facebook in response to a Chalkbeat story about the changes.

“This is a pretty useless response to the opt-out movement,” Klonsky wrote. “People were not opting their children out of the tests because they didn’t have enough time to take them. They opted out because the tests and their preparation take up too much time as it is. Now they are going to take up more time!”

Unlimited time on tests could make for a logistical nightmare, said Michael Reilly, the president of Community Education Council 31 in Staten Island who has advertised his own decision to opt his children out of state tests and has applied for the open at-large seat on the Board of Regents. If some students are still working while others are finished, teachers will have to oversee both groups of students and find a quiet place for students still taking the test, he said.

Eliminating a few test questions is a small dent in a system that forces elementary school students to take six full days of exams, Rudley said. Instead, she said she would like to see only one day of testing for each subject with about 45 minutes for each test.

And Reilly noted that while educator involvement is a good thing, the state’s guidance is not specific about how many teachers will work to revamp each test.

“I think she’s trying to put a bandaid on the issues that parents and educators have raised,” Reilly said. “This is one attempt to appease parents. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s well thought out.”

The movement is finding an ally in the state teachers union, which is also pressing Elia to move more quickly in overhauling the state’s testing program. In a letter sent Friday, NYSUT urged Elia to reduce the number of days dedicated to testing and push the tests later in the school year.

“The department should not pass up this opportunity to make meaningful change in the testing system and restore the confidence of teachers, parents, and students,” reads the letter, signed by NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino.

Not everyone is a harsh critic of Elia’s policies. Many defended her testing changes as the first steps towards broader reform.

Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said most superintendents believe Elia’s announcement is a “good faith effort” to change broken testing practices and that moving any faster would be dangerous.

“We got into all these things over a period of years, in part, by rushing into things,” Lowry said about the current state tests, “so let’s not make the same mistake in trying to repair the damage caused by our earlier mistakes.”

Jay Worona, the deputy executive director and general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association, said both the commissioner’s defense and the opt-out leaders’ reactions are understandable.

“The commissioner is saying, ‘Please work with me. Don’t assume that the status quo is going to be preserved forever,’” Worona said. On the other hand, the opt-leaders and supporters are thinking, “If we don’t keep this pressure on, we don’t really believe that these changes are going to occur,” he said.

Indeed, opt-out leaders have pledged to keep fighting until state tests meet their standards.

“Parents will not be opting back in until the tests are appropriate,” Rudley said. “Parents will still continue to opt out.”

ASD scores

In Tennessee’s turnaround district, 9 in 10 young students fall short on their first TNReady exams

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Nine out of 10 of elementary- and middle-school students in Tennessee’s turnaround district aren’t scoring on grade level in English and math, according to test score data released Thursday.

The news is unsurprising: The Achievement School District oversees 32 of the state’s lowest-performing schools. But it offers yet another piece of evidence that the turnaround initiative has fallen far short of its ambitious original goal of vaulting struggling schools to success.

Around 5,300 students in grades 3-8 in ASD schools took the new, harder state exam, TNReady, last spring. Here’s how many scored “below” or “approaching,” meaning they did not meet the state’s standards:

  • 91.8 percent of students in English language arts;
  • 91.5 percent in math;
  • 77.9 percent in science.

View scores for all ASD schools in our spreadsheet

In all cases, ASD schools’ scores fell short of state averages, which were all lower than in the past because of the new exam’s higher standards. About 66 percent of students statewide weren’t on grade level in English language arts, 62 percent weren’t on grade level in math, and 41 percent fell short in science.

ASD schools also performed slightly worse, on average, than the 15 elementary and middle schools in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, the district’s own initiative for low-performing schools. On average, about 89 percent of iZone students in 3-8 weren’t on grade level in English; 84 percent fell short of the state’s standards in math.

The last time that elementary and middle schools across the state received test scores, in 2015, ASD schools posted scores showing faster-than-average improvement. (Last year’s tests for grades 3-8 were canceled because of technical problems.)

The low scores released today suggest that the ASD’s successes with TCAP, the 2015 exam, did not carry over to the higher standards of TNReady.

But Verna Ruffin, the district’s new chief of academics, said the scores set a new bar for future growth and warned against comparing them to previous results.

“TNReady has more challenging questions and is based on a different, more rigorous set of expectations developed by Tennessee educators,” Ruffin said in a statement. “For the Achievement School District, this means that we will use this new baseline data to inform instructional practices and strategically meet the needs of our students and staff as we acknowledge the areas of strength and those areas for improvement.”

Some ASD schools broke the mold and posted some strong results. Humes Preparatory Middle School, for example, had nearly half of students meet or exceed the state’s standards in science, although only 7 percent of students in math and 12 percent in reading were on grade level.

Thursday’s score release also included individual high school level scores. View scores for individual schools throughout the state as part of our spreadsheet here.

Are Children Learning

School-by-school TNReady scores for 2017 are out now. See how your school performed

PHOTO: Zondra Williams/Shelby County Schools
Students at Wells Station Elementary School in Memphis hold a pep rally before the launch of state tests, which took place between April 17 and May 5 across Tennessee.

Nearly six months after Tennessee students sat down for their end-of-year exams, all of the scores are now out. State officials released the final installment Thursday, offering up detailed information about scores for each school in the state.

Only about a third of students met the state’s English standards, and performance in math was not much better, according to scores released in August.

The new data illuminates how each school fared in the ongoing shift to higher standards. Statewide, scores for students in grades 3-8, the first since last year’s TNReady exam was canceled amid technical difficulties, were lower than in the past. Scores also remained low in the second year of high school tests.

“These results show us both where we can learn from schools that are excelling and where we have specific schools or student groups that need better support to help them achieve success – so they graduate from high school with the ability to choose their path in life,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement.

Did some schools prepare teachers and students better for the new state standards, which are similar to the Common Core? Was Memphis’s score drop distributed evenly across the city’s schools? We’ll be looking at the data today to try to answer those questions.

Check out all of the scores in our spreadsheet or on the state website and add your questions and insights in the comments.